anima, animated, animism

A while back, Murat Nemet-Nejat, Samuel Vriezen, Lisa Samuels and I were talking about animism. To continue with that thread, I'd like to give a brief tour through the animist universe of Vietnamese folk poetry. Vietnam has a rich tradition of folk poems, mainly because 95% of the people were illiterate before the 20th century and the adoption of the alphabet. (When someone trumpets "oral," think "illiterate.") These poems reflect the peasant experience. The educated class preferred to compose their poetry in Chinese, mostly. A native script, nôm, was developed in the 13th century, but never reached full flowering until the 19th, just before the French invaded. With no pen, paper, media or blogs, the peasant talked to everything closest to him, including his best friend, the water buffalo:

Buffalo, let me tell you something,
Go out and plow with me,
Out in the field, be a farmer.
Me here, you there, who's griping?
As long as the rice stalks are blooming,
There'll be blades of grass for you to eat.

The heron was also a regular companion. After he died, a proper funeral and altar, if only in poetry, had to be arranged:

The heron died last night,
Left two grains of rice and three coins,
One coin to buy an oboe and a drum,
One coin to buy fat for the altar lamp,
And one for a fistful of lady's thumb leaves,
To be chopped fine, in memory of the dead heron.

The peasant noticed the personalities of different birds:

Listen, listen to this bird talk:
Always coming on is the cuckoo.
Not too nice, a crank, is the cormorant.
Working himself ragged is the teal.
Eavesdropping is the drongo.
Can't walk straight is the heron.
Won't come out at night is the snipe.
Eating by the potful is the pelican.
Snacking in the alley is the lark.
Pole vaulting is the peacock.
Having blue feathers and a red beak is the quail.
Always picking a fight is the plover.
Toting a bright book is the soothsayer hawk.
Having never been proposed to is the cotton feathers.
Living alone, a widow, is the peewit.
Having a steel stomach is the wagtail.
Won't tend to its own children is the duck.
With nothing to do, we talk about birds.
They eat, grow fat, follow each other away.
The weaver is smart, then clever.
The owl nests on a hillock at the edge of an island.
The racked-tail treepie has a bulletin:
When it calls, the sisters are coming.
The crows are just like men,
Coming back from a swim.

He conversed with insects:

Ant, you're suing that sweet potato.
You're sneering that I'm too poor,
Who else are you going to live with?
I have nine piles of grain, ten water-buffaloes,
A fish pond with planks for washing your feet.

He saw an animal perfection achievable in marriage:

The two of us are like a pair of silkworms,
Eating the same leaf, lying in the same basket.


The robin eats longans.
The fighting fish knows its tub.
Husband and wife are familiar
With each other's smell.

Without wife, he was not just an animal, but a vegetable also:

Snail irritated snail
Twists and twirls.
Duckweed irritated duckweed
Hovers on top of water.
Water irritated water
Is drained to plant potatoes.
Potatoes irritated potatoes
Are dug up to plant water spinach.
Water spinach irritated water spinach
Is plucked to make soup.
You irritated you
Lying forlorn, wifeless,
On an empty bed!
Is the bed irritated?

Tired of mammals, birds and insects, he befriended the moon:

Mr. Moon, Mr. Moon,
Come down and hang out with me.
There's white rice in the pot,
And sticky rice in the pot,
Square rice cakes with bean paste,
A jug of wine and a straw mat,
A boy scooping for oysters, and a girl
Holding a baby. We can go watch the fishermen trawl.
There's a coconut-shell dipper in the water jar,
And a weaved basket for rinsing rice.
There's a comb for your hair,
Water buffalo working the rice paddies,
Water spinach in the pond, Mr. Star in the sky.

He noticed the scandalous miscegenation between wind and moon:

The wind escorts the moon; the moon escorts the wind.
When the moon sets, who can the wind be with?

The solitute of stars and spiders:

The morning star fades in the night sky.
Who are you missing, star?
A little spider weaves its web.
Who are you thinking of?

In comfort and fear, he knew we're all related:

The cornstalk is the soybean's aunt.
The soybean is the cucumber's brother.
The cucumber is the cassaba melon's cousin.
The cassaba melon is the watermelon's mistress.
The watermelon is the corn stalk's uncle.
The corn stalk is the soybean's aunt.

1 comment:

Murat Nemet-Nejat said...


We are talking about a completely different relationship to space, that one's life is part of a wider circle.

If the human beings and animals are completely different and separate, then assigning feelings to animals is a fallacy.

When Kafka says that K has turned into a cockroach, is he merely using a metaphor or extending the imagination into the other?

"love, of a not yet visible asia, is the barely sensible skin of plants."